Tag: Workaholism

31Aug

It’s All in the Wrist

I have tendinitis in my right hand and wrist. Have I mentioned that here before? It’s relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of life; I can’t lift much with my hand, and Dan has to chop the vegetables for dinner, but it’s never struck me as anything to write home about. Perhaps part of that is because the tendinitis started under the dumbest possible circumstances: I opted one day to carry a far-too-heavy grocery bag to the car rather than going out of my way to get a cart, and the next day, I couldn’t hold a fork. I wore a splint on my hand for a bit, tried anti-inflammatories, electrotherapy, and corticosteroid injections, and then decided that I’d just live with the stupid thing. After all, it’s not like I could take three months off using my dominant hand in order to let it rehabilitate. I’ve got things to do, places to drive, a household to care for. Rest wasn’t even on the spectrum of possibility for me.

That, dear friends? Was four years ago. Four. YEARS. Last week, I had a come-to-Jesus moment in which I realized I’ve been living with a gimpy hand for nearly half a decade just to avoid three months of recovery time. Algebra may not be my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t even out. (Cancel out? Equal out? Blerg.)

Wednesday was my Duh Day, and I strapped the splint back on before adding up the next three months and putting them into the calendar as milestones. The final one is on Thanksgiving Day, when I will be able to eat turkey with my right hand if it still remembers the mechanics. The timing of this feels like no accident. Six days into rest therapy, and the reasons for gratitude are already piled up to my ears… though to be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time differentiating between gratitude and guilt.

I’m really ridiculously bad at letting others take care of me. I first noticed this tendency in myself the day during junior high when I got faint in class but instinctively turned down my long-time crush’s offer of water and attention. (Commence six weeks of private head-desking in my diary.) Being as little trouble as possible is a virtue in my weird brain. I want to do All The Things myself, thank you, and the scenario most likely to drive me demented is having to rely on others for the basics of life.

So, pretty much exactly what’s going down right now.

For the last six days, my husband and girls have been taking care of everything for me from food preparation to deodorant application (#truelove), and only one of us is chafing under this arrangement. It’s like I’m still in junior high, unable to grasp that someone’s caring actions might be rooted in genuine care for me. I have been tempted dozens of times to fling off my splint and this whole three-month recovery attempt because it’s too hard—because accepting the gift of rest is far more difficult than working my tendons to shambles. The next twelve weeks lurk beyond the limits of my imagination.

This is the same strain of ridiculous, however, that prompts otherwise sane adults to ignore injuries for four years. Rejecting help out of misplaced guilt is dumber than giving yourself tendinitis. I know this, no matter how poorly I demonstrate it. The fight begins and ends in my head.

It helps, actually, to look down at my wrists, the source of so much maddening incapability right now. On the right one, I have metal guides velcroed into place; on the left, a grace note. Helplessness twinned with gratitude, my limitations the backdrop for gift. I am still frustrated with myself and still predisposed toward guilt; I hate having to ask so much of my little family, cheerful though they are to pitch in. This time is good for us all though, I suspect. My girls are going to learn to clean the bathrooms, and I’m going to learn to chill. We’re all going to survive these three months, and maybe by the time Thanksgiving rolls into town, it won’t be the recovered hand that I’m celebrating so much as the recovered ability to rest.

(Also, the amazing left-handed typing skills that are sure to kick in aaaaaannnyyy time now… right? Right?)

20Feb

Fossilized

[Part 1 of this story is here.]

By Tuesday evening last week, I’d spent the first 30 hours of my long-desired writing retreat in a headlock with myself, and I was “cotta” as we say in Italian. Cooked. Burned out, beaten, and too exhausted to keep hurling myself at the wall of senseless panic standing between myself and my blank document.

I suspect that this is frustrating for some of you to read. After all, I was in Tuscany—Tuscany!—with three glorious days all to myself. I’ve watched friends go on similar retreats and thought, If onlyMy assumption was always that prolonged peace and quiet would act as creative steroids. If only I found myself in a similar setting, then I too could produce something out of this world. But now I was there, tucked up on an Italian hillside with a project idea I loved and an awareness of my own privilege cloying the air, and I couldn’t write a damn paragraph. You’ve heard the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”? It would seem that I had gone to Tuscany and run smack dab into myself.

One thing depression taught me about myself years ago is that I will fight to defend my personal collection of shoulds until sheer rock-bottom exhaustion loosens my grip on them. I don’t surrender the expectations I have for myself any other way. And why should I? In the thick of depression, it only seemed right to keep trying harder and harder to act sane, to pacify God and be an uncomplicated wife and smother desperation on sight. If it wasn’t working, I just needed to double my efforts, yes? Not until much later, after the rock bottom and the rebuilding, did I see what a chokehold those expectations had had on my soul.

Now, I’m not saying that going on a writing retreat is anything like going through depression, but I’d certainly arrived at my hotel last week clutching a stack of notions about how the time should go, about how I should be. Privilege-guilt factored enormously into them, as did something else… something I couldn’t put my finger on with all of my thoughts bolting away the instant I got close. I didn’t know what to do with these expectations other than cling more and more tightly to them though. If I let go, the trip would instantly be rendered pointless and earlier versions of my jealous writing self would show up to punch me in the throat to the tune of “Loser.”

Thank God for exhaustion.

If I hadn’t surrendered my weary, 96% certifiable self to the idea of a writingless retreat and clicked over to Facebook for some distraction therapy that evening, I wouldn’t have seen this:

Curiosity not fear
(Liz Gilbert’s Facebook page is a gem. Get thee there, stat!)

And if I hadn’t seen this, who knows how long it would have taken me to recognize the “something else” that had been giving my brain a 30-hour swirlie as fear?

Working with words can feel like trying to choreograph dust motes. Until sentences land on the page, they’re nothing more than airborne particulates, figments of psychology and instinct that tend to dissolve on eye contact. Being afraid of writing is essentially getting worked up over nothing. That was my first thought when I read Liz’s quote. What do I possibly have to be afraid of? I’m here to transcribe thoughts, not diffuse bombs. This is a zero threat situation. WTF, brain?

When I took stock of how I’d been approaching my project, however, curiosity was nowhere to be found. Stephen King refers to stories as fossils that we excavate through the writing process, and ideally, I would have been on my knees with a trowel and an old toothbrush, intrigued to see what I’d unearth. Instead, I was paralyzed at the side of the dig. Because what if I uncovered a fossil so hideous that it made folks clutch their pearls and call their congressmen in protest? Or what if the fossil turned out to be so boring that museum viewers would ask for their money back? Worst of all, what if I had the wrong tools and botched the whole operation? What if I failed?

Fear, meet Bethany. Bethany, Fear.

Getting myself in a staring match with fear was no more helpful to me than beating myself over the head with reminders of my own privilege had been. This wasn’t something I could power my way through. (Depression 101.) When I latched onto the word “curiosity” though, it pulled me right off my petrified feet and through the murk to a new perspective on what I was doing. I closed Facebook and opened Google. Research time.

Writing retreat - research

The rest of my retreat looked very different from the productive type-o-fest I’d expected. I went on long walks in the cold, ordered espressos, and adopted various park benches near my hotel for the purpose of daydreaming. I scribbled sideways and upside down in my pocket journal following looping threads of whimsy. I clipped about a hundred of the most bizarre search results to Evernote (out of curiosity, how likely is the FBI to investigate writers?) and then filled another page with follow-up questions. I still had to beat back the granddaddy of all F-words, Failure, which was all too happy to inform me that I was squandering my retreat and that research was basically procrastination in a pair of pince-nez, but curiosity kept me on a joyful forward momentum that no collection of shoulds has ever prompted in me.

I returned home last Thursday about as tired as I’ve ever been. Winning a battle doesn’t mean you’re unscathed by it, especially when you weren’t expecting the fight in the first place. I’m still feeling tender and bruisable, and I can’t pretend not to be disappointed that I didn’t return from my retreat with a manuscript of any length. I’ll be wrestling with the hows and whys of that for a long time, I suspect. However, I did bring back one significant treasure: the outline of a fossil, as clear and intriguing as a headline. And I’m not afraid of it.

Writing retreat - Bench

30Sep

Uneven Melody

We’re into the third week of the school year now, and time is a concerto played by an inexperienced pianist. Some days rush stumbling past while others hesitate a beat too long. We haven’t yet found the cadence that will let us relax into the work-family balance about which I stubbornly daydream each September, but there’s still the hope.

Maybe in October, I’ll figure out how to fit in a good workout every day instead of ducking out to the track at dinnertime on random Thursdays.

In October, the kitchen counters will not wear so much as a crumb.

In October, my brain will get along perfectly with itself and enjoy many happy hours of productivity on command.

In October, no one will come down with one of those ubiquitous beginning-of-the-school-year viruses.

In October, all four of us will go to bed on time every night and get up early every day and eat balanced diets with high percentages of kale-laced quinoa and have lots of people over to our house—which will remain company-ready at all times, naturally—and read for hours in an old-fashioned family huddle each evening because such will be the nature of our spare time.

Right? Right.

Riiiiiiiiight.

The fact of the matter is that tomorrow, life will continue coloring outside the lines as it has done since the first cave woman carved the first to-do list into her Day-Timer®. I know this like I know the spelling of my own name, but I can’t help hoping that that one of these years, I’ll accidentally step on life’s Easy Button™ and watch time unfurl itself in front of me. Why do we do that, by the way? Cling to the completely untenable idea that we will, eventually, against all odds and several millennia of experiential proof, figure out the secret to breezing through life?

Dan often tells me that I set my expectations for my days way too high, which… well, maybe he has a point. My dead serious to-do list yesterday included blogging, ironing the three-foot-high stack of clean laundry, coming up with a menu for the week, working out, and reading over a friend’s book manuscript. In the end, I… worked out.

I suppose that my to-do lists could be better termed “wish lists,” and I’m learning and re-learning to think of them as such. September is an especially hard time to keep my perspective in check though. It’s the time of year when syllabi are handed out, those crisp and bullet-pointed promises of what students will have accomplished in three months’ time. It’s when the acronym NaNoWriMo begins to pop up around the interwebs as brave souls assure themselves that they can write an entire novel in a month. (I couldn’t, but that doesn’t stop me from rolling the “what ifs” between my brain lobes each year like a prospective buyer.) It’s the time of year when I can’t help slipping brand-name office supply names®™ into my blog entries because September has and always will smell to me like the inside of a Staples—highlighter ink and pencil shavings and unlicked envelopes and possibility.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of setting goals, but the lesson I face with each new autumn is one of acceptance: Understand that “according to plan” is not a phrase in life’s vernacular. Greet each day with a preemptive dose of grace. Enjoy the happy surprises that take place outside the realm of to-do lists—snuggling sessions with my girls, emergency pumpkin pie fudge (because we can’t have our precious hand-puréed pumpkin going bad on us), piano duets, running into friends at the grocery store. Allow time and space to process the hard surprises too—neighbors in crisis, work contracts failing to materialize, children coming down with every single variation of the cold virus to creep within 100 miles of our house. Accept that perfection is almost definitely a myth, a pristine projection untouched by either the grime or the warmth of reality.

Maybe in October, I’ll remember how to relax into this uneven melody and the joy tucked in between each unpredictable note.

27Aug

The American Context vs. August in Italy

For the second time in a week, I’d found myself smack dab between the lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” The first time had happened the day after we arrived in the Italian Alps, after we had laced up our shoes and left the narrow walls of our hotel and picnicked on a grassy slope, butterflies tangoing with the wind around us. The second time was on our final hike of our getaway. I was stretched out in a meadow with my camera, trying to soak in as much of the place as I could before we packed up, when the miniature grasshopper sprang onto a blade of grass in front of my nose. At least I think it’s a grasshopper. It could be a cricket or a locust or a boll weevil for all I know (or, to be honest, want to know) about six-legged creatures. I did not, however, jump back shrieking in my standard Insect Encounter Dance. Instead, I watched it, fascinated and at peace while Mary Oliver filled my mind:

“Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

I had the time to understand her phrase “idle and blessed,” to take the ancient Hebrew lyric “Be still and know” to heart. Out of all souvenirs, that state of unhurried intention is what I most wanted to bring home with me this summer.

It didn’t even make it down the mountainside.

///

August is a quiet month in Italy. School is a purely September construct; no one is thinking of fresh pencils or new jeans just yet. Instead, everyone is in beach mode, moving through the steamed air like half-dressed anemones. Shops are closed. Utility companies are on vacation. No one here expects anything remotely resembling productivity.

Except for me.

Even here, in the warm laze of summer, I choke for want of time. It feels almost like a nutritional deficiency, this sense of depletion when I look at the clock. If I could just work out how to double the hours between eating and sleeping, I think, then I could keep up with the pace of online work, to say nothing of the dust bunnies that procreate like… well, rabbits around here. I would also settle for getting my brain to work twice as quickly or my body to have twice the energy. Basically, my aspiration is to become Bart Simpson on Squishee syrup.

///

I just started reading Tsh Oxenreider’s Notes from a Blue Bike, and I can so closely relate to her struggle to keep the slower European lifestyle within the faster American context that I want to look up from every other sentence and tell her, “Me too!” I know I don’t have a great deal of room to pine over the European lifestyle considering that I live here and all. Obviously, I’m already in the perfect place for slowing down, embracing simplicity, and savoring the little things. What’s not as obvious, though, is that I’m still operating in an American context. I am the American context. My work philosophy, my personal expectations, my tendency to view life as an emergency… all of it is part of the cultural package that leaves me rushed and harried even when everyone around me is in vacation mode.

And this is after seven years of adapting.

Clearly, I still have much to learn from Italy, but Tsh’s assurance that we can choose how we live is buoying me today. Even as I write this, we’re packing up for a few days at the beach with friends. My attention keeps drifting down to the to-do list on my desk, a wee slip of paper that carries enough weight to sink me some days. It’s already tried twice today. There are so many chores to squeeze in before we leave, and I need to remember the beach stuff down in storage, and I haven’t gotten a haircut yet, and the girls will need packing help, and my email inbox is going to seed again, and how can I sit here dallying with words when there is so much to do, so very very much, and so very little time in which to do it, and AAAHHHHHHHH?

The answer is with that little grasshopper above. I can sit here and write today (albeit distractedly) for the same reason that I could lie on my stomach photographing blades of grass last month—because I chose to do it. I can ignore the chaotic context within me and do things on purpose that give me life. I can throw my lopsided sense of responsibility to the wind. I can choose.

I know that vacation isn’t the typical setting for one to channel her inner Thoreau, but my hope is that if I can remind myself how to live deliberately when I’m kicked back on the sand, maybe—just maybe—it will stick around once I’m back home.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

11Mar

Newton’s First Law Of Writing

I never know what to do with the wordless days—the days that dawn far off the map I’d charted for them the night before, the days that start with too-heavy eyelids and swampwater focus and maybe a child throwing up in the other room. Just show up is the right answer to every artistic indecision; I know this. But on the wordless days, showing up feels like wishful thinking and irresponsibility rolled into one—me, sitting blank-eyed in front of my computer while the minutes slip by unharnessed. I could be putting lunch together, paying the bills, writing emails, scrubbing winter grime off the windows. Wouldn’t it be better to spend this time attending to other responsibilities so that I’ll be unencumbered whenever inspiration does decide to hit?

I know the answer to this one too. It’s the law of inertia: an object at rest staying at rest and an object in motion staying in motion. In the long run, it is far easier to continue the forward motion of writing (or working out, or communicating with my spouse, or keeping an open house) than to have to restart it once the friction of daily life has been allowed to grind it to a halt. If I don’t show up today because I feel disconnected from my work, I will only be perpetuating that disconnect. Tomorrow will be harder, and the day after that even more so, and eventually I will need to exert tremendous effort to jumpstart what was once a flawed but fulfilling rhythm. (I should know this well by now; I’ve repeated the cycle no less than several hundred frustrating times over the years.)

Objects in motion stay in motion, and so I’m doing my best to show up even on these uncharted days when staring down a blank page seems like the least logical use of my time. Just half an hour. Just two or three unremarkable paragraphs. Just enough for forward momentum to win out over the slow drag of gravity and its pull toward the equal and devastatingly opposite inertia of wordlessness.

19Feb

Anti-Survival Instincts

Yesterday, I poured myself into a writing project that drained every last bit of me out through my fingertips and left me as useful as an empty waterbed. I emerged from my computer around 5 p.m. to be on active mama duty, and let me tell you—the following three and a half hours until the girls were safely tucked into bed rivaled snowboard cross for difficulty. Every “Mo-om! out of their little mouths felt like someone ramming my board just before a jump. The fact that they expected to eat dinner sent me skidding. Our bedtime routine stretched from here to Russia. It. was. hard.

This is how things go when I’m tired; everything ramps up in intensity, and a wipeout is inevitable if I don’t let myself slow down. That’s the key, isn’t it? Slowing down? It sounds so simple here in the straight lines of a paragraph, but in the glorious mess of real life, slowing down runs exactly opposite to my instincts. Here’s what goes through my head when I feel fatigue start to drag at my reflexes: Oh no, I’m running on fumes. Better SPEED UP so I can get to the end sooner!

Yeah. Have I ever told you about my other anti-survival instincts? Like how my palms start to gush sweat if I even consider the human act of dangling from a precipice? Or how my fight-or-flight reflex could more accurately be called the curl-up-in-a-ball-and-forget-everything-but-the-lyrics-to-Bohemian-Rhapsody impulse? My instincts do me few favors when it comes to winning at life.

So yesterday evening, I sped up to reach the finish line faster, and it wasn’t pretty. Sure, I got the kitchen cleaned and the laundry put away and the allergy treatments administered and the children homeworked/fed/cleaned/pajamaed/storied, but I did it with a kind of urgent clumsiness that left the girls reeling and myself too tired even to sleep. (Irony at its most insomniac.) What I’m trying to say is that no one was particularly happy with the result.

Here at the starting gate of another exhausted day (see above re: ironic lack of sleep), I’m writing this down to cement some facts into my modus operandi:

  1. Daily life is not a competition… unless you’re on reality TV, which I am not nor ever shall be so help me God.
  2. Slow is good for the soul, especially when said soul is feeling drained.
  3. Putting down the frantic dishrag and curling up with my daughter is a two-way grace.
  4. I should probably consider hiring Bear Grylls to be my personal life coach, help balance out these unfortunate instincts a bit.

Wiping out in style
(Oh yeah, I could totally rock the snowboard cross.)

14Jan

Holiday Hangover

We told everyone that this time around, we would be doing Christmas in our pajamas, and we did. No suitcases, no schedules, not even snapshots to commemorate the thing. We spent the holiday drawn in tightly to our little family nucleus, and when a Yuletide virus stopped by to knock the four of us out of commission, we simply paused the carols and curled up for a nap. It was as low-key as you can get.

And still still still, despite our PJs-and-leftovers approach to Christmas, the season managed to flatten me as surely as a wrecking ball. This happens every year. I imagine us strolling through a December as serene as the lyrics to Silent Night, our faces reflecting the twinkle of simple delights. After a Christmas of grand surprises and Norman Rockwell reenactments, we’d settle back with our eggnog to watch the snow fall and our children play jacks until the new year chimes in, inviting us to skip down new avenues of creativity and possibility with all those fresh reserves of energy. I imagine REST as the defining characteristic of our holiday.

Of course, my daydream version of December is 97% dependent on house elves while the other 3% is up to the weather.

Real December has a knack for turning joyful occasions into deadlines and togetherness into a theater production. At least it does for me. No matter how committed I am to slowing down and savoring the holidays, most spare moments still find me scrambling to finish the backdrops and props of traditional merriness while our budget burrows a hole under the fence. Some of that I’m sure is due to my being The Mom, which is shorthand for Santa-Claus-party-hostess-errandboy-housecleaner-magic-experience-coordinator-pixie, while the other part is that I’m terrible at letting go of expectations (mine + others’ + ones that I attribute to others whether or not that impression is accurate). I’m so afraid of disappointing anyone that I run myself into the ground preparing for events that I’m then too worn out to enjoy. Really, REST ends up being the opposite characteristic of my holiday, so it’s no big surprise that I tend to start January with an emotional hangover.

I’m not writing this to complain about our Christmas but rather to notice and remember—to acknowledge the patterns that end up depleting me and to tack my observations up on the doors of future Decembers. It’s only now that I really can begin to notice, with the girls back in school and house renovations wrapping up (what timing, eh?) and all the upheaval and rush and too-late nights of the past month gradually losing their grip on the present. Self-care can now get a word in edgewise, and I’m relieved to be getting back to myself. I love the sparkle of Christmas, but I also love the slow glow of a nourished heart. Here’s hoping that next year, I’ll finally find a way to combine the two.

How were your holidays?

© Copyright 2015, all rights reserved.
Site powered by Training Lot.
Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.